One of the grand traditions of the Past & Present Reading Group is “the pitch.” As we near the end of our current text, those who have engaged with it are given the opportunity to nominate the next book that the group will tackle. At risk of doing an injustice to any selfless members of the group, I would suggest that most pitches combine two motives of the pitcher: on the one hand, a genuine feeling that a collective reading of the suggested text will pay dividends to all members; on the other, a more prosaic, self-interested desire to recommend a book that is important to their own work and which they want to read anyway. Such was definitely the case when I pitched Alex Callinicos’ Making History: Agency, Structure, and Change in Social Theory. The debate about structure and agency, around which this book revolves, is of course timeless in social theory, Marxism included, and is thus of general relevance and interest to the group. More narrowly, however, I was particularly interested in Making History due to my own research in literature, which draws heavily upon the work of Louis Althusser. I find many of Althusser’s concepts, such as overdetermination, structured totality, and interpellation to be immensely incisive and fecund, but I was always troubled by the structural Marxist endgame: the reduction of human agents to the passive bearers, or Träger, of social structures. Knowing Callinicos as a writer who recognises the innovation and value of Althusserian thought whilst being live to its very real limitations, I came to Making History looking to find a way to square the circle of keeping Althusser whilst finding a way to affirm the agency of human beings.
I will return to the question of whether or not I found the solution I was looking for on this front. First, I wish to outline the book’s structure and chief arguments, which is no easy task given the huge amount of ground covered. Callinicos begins by stating very clearly his terms of reference in the introduction: ‘I shall be concerned in this book with the respective roles played by social structures and human agency in history’ (p. xlv). First published in 1987, the book appeared at an interesting conjuncture in the history of Marxist theory – the Althusserian project was in ruins, whilst analytical Marxism (which was at least in part a response to the former) was creaking under the weight of its own contradictions. However, it seemed that the concepts and understandings of both schools of thought still fundamentally structured the field of Marxist theory. In counter-posing them, Callinicos notes two equally unsatisfactory end points: the aforementioned Althusserian reduction of agents to structures, their very agency a figment produced by ideology; and the methodological individualism of ostensibly Marxist scholars such as Jon Elster and John Roemer who, in seeing structures as the result of rational individual preferences, essentially became hostage to the dominant bourgeois account of agents. Callinicos’ book is thus best understood as an attempt to chart a course between the Scylla of structuralism and the Charybdis of analytical Marxism.
In my view, Callinicos is largely successful in plotting the broad-brush theoretical terms through which a genuinely materialist articulation of structure and agency can be thought. He does so by combining two chief insights. First, as explored in Chapter 1, Callinicos defends a version of what he deems the “orthodox conception of agents”, that is, the idea that agents (in the first instance individuals) act in light of their beliefs and desires, and are in this sense goal-directed. Callinicos accepts that such a way of thinking about agents ‘could only be formulated in definite historical conditions’ (p. 4) (namely, the flowering of bourgeois thought in the Enlightenment), but refutes the logical next-step of restricting such agents to those conditions. Rather, he argues that ‘there are…good reasons for holding the orthodox conception to be true’ (p. 17), based in large part upon his subscription to some common, enduring human nature; ‘[t]hat is, there are some aspects of human subjects which are not simply socially constructed and which may provide both motives for and means of acting’ (p. 21). Callinicos argues that Marx himself subscribed to such an understanding, with his philosophical anthropology positing ‘reciprocity, the capacity to engage in verbal communication and self-consciousness’ (p. 24) as basic elements of a transhistorical human nature. However, far from regarding human nature as an exhaustive and unchanging basket of characteristics, Callinicos, following Norman Geras, is quick to acknowledge that the maintenance of some bare understanding of ‘the nature of man’ does not eliminate a degree of mutability in that nature; indeed, it actually presupposes it. Human nature consists of needs and capacities, and it is precisely the development of the social division of labour that allows the many-sided flowering of these needs and capacities. Callinicos thus historicises the version of human nature which has traditionally been reified in bourgeois thought.
We can thus regard human beings as engaging in intentional, goal-directed activity premised on an historically-shaped human nature. However, Callinicos is very quick to distinguish this historical reality from the theoretical postulates of methodological individualism, the very postulates underlying the analytical Marxism of Jon Elster and John Roemer. Methodological individualism claims ‘that the explanation of social events can only be in terms of individuals, their states and properties’ (p. 34). Callinicos correctly argues that, even if we agree that individuals do act in intentional, self-aware ways, methodological individualism posits an illegitimate (and usually hidden) logical step; that is, it ascribes to agents the power to actually engage in behaviour that realises their desires. Using the example of Spartacus and his slave revolt, Callinicos shows how ‘actions consist in the exercise of powers, and the powers agents have depend on and are determined in part by social structures’ (p. 36, my emphasis).
In an irony noted by Callinicos in the introduction to the second edition of the book, he never actually provides an explicit definition of social structures. However, the analysis implicitly proceeds on the definition he added in that new introduction, ‘that a social structure is a relation connecting persons, material resources, supra-individual entities (social institutions of some kind), and/or structures by virtue of which some persons (not necessarily those so connected) gain powers of a specific kind’ (p. xxiii). He cites as a textbook example of a structure the production relations that are central to historical materialism. Chapter 2 is explicitly focused on the question of structure and action. Like the preceding chapter, Callinicos closely examines the arguments around structure in then-contemporary Marxist thought, passing through G.A. Cohen and his functionalist understanding of superstructural institutions and the rational choice Marxism of Elster and Roemer. Against these scholars, Callinicos defends “classical historical materialism”, which stresses the tension between the forces and relations of production and highlights the fact that such tension is likely to manifest itself as an organic crisis. However, against any kind of teleological understanding of class struggle as simply the unfolding of abstract structural forces, Callinicos argues that such structural constraints do not wholly determine the actions taken by individuals in a society. Such a position would render the orthodox conception of agents valueless, and moreover ‘is inconsistent with Marxism’ (p. 87). Instead, Callinicos crafts an understanding of structural capacities (the second chief insight of the book), an understanding that ‘agents’ powers are partly dependent on their position in production relations’ (p. 99).
If we accept that agents act in intentional ways, and that this articulates with structures in specific ways to produce and/or retard certain outcomes, then we need to understand what it is that motivates them to act. Such is the subject of Chapters 3 and 4, which proved dense and challenging ones for the reading group. In Chapter 3, Callinicos embarks on a lengthy digression as to the nature of human speech using theorists such as Donald Davidson and Jürgen Habermas, the primary purpose of which seems to be proving the necessity of the orthodox conception of rational agents forwarded in the preceding chapters. He then proceeds to investigate the traditional utilitarian feature of action, correctly noting its narrow understanding of utility and the fact that it is usually rendered completely vacuous when applied to more complex motivations (e.g. seeing in altruism some distorted form of self-interest). Instead, using the work of Charles Taylor, he observes how humans are ‘strong evaluators’ capable of forming first and second-order desires, desires that pose not only the question of ‘what I want’, but ‘what I want to be’ (at this point, he usefully mentions the implicit Aristotelian morality that informs Marx’s work, to which I will return). This idea of people as strong evaluators is then linked to a notion of interests. After an extensive tracing of its treatment in different hands, Callinicos, siding with Anthony Giddens, defines interests thus: ‘interests presume want, but the concept of interest concerns not the wants as such, but the possible modes of their realisation in given sets of circumstances…’ (p. 146). This conception of interests then provides the ‘hinge connecting conscious experience and objective structures, since it refers to the way in which agents’ realisation of their interests depends on their structural capacities’ (p. 150).
Chapter 4 is in many ways the most wide-ranging, combining as it does a reflection on the nature of ideology, an account of the political/military dynamic of feudalism, and some brief observations on the base/superstructure model that has historically grounded Marxist political economy. Callinicos begins by debunking the strong version of the ‘dominant ideology’ thesis, which essentially sees ideology as false consciousness produced through the imposition of ruling-class ideas. In its place, Callinicos, following Göran Therborn, posits a seemingly simpler account of ideology as the way in which conscious actors live in a world that makes some sort of sense to them. On this score, ideology need not be false but can, like all claims, be either true or false (a somewhat problematic notion that I shall return to). Following this line, Callinicos is able to tackle the Althusserian despair that our very subjectivity is a creation of the dominant ideology, positing instead that there are a constellation of ideologies making competing interpellative demands on human agents. From here, Callinicos sets out on a somewhat different course, showing how the prevalence of so-called “political accumulation” in feudal societies, often cited as evidence of the inadequacy of the Marxist focus on the forces and relations of production, instead confirms it. This argument then leads Callinicos on to some broader reflections about the nature of the base/superstructure metaphor, which he very usefully frames as a suite of analytical concepts, rather than a topological metaphor intended to reflect accurately the outward appearances of a mode of production.
Chapter 5, on tradition and revolution, is the effective denouement of the book. In it, Callinicos raises some key questions about the essential nature of revolution. Is it premised on a structural separation of theory and practice, à la Theodor Adorno? Is it absolutely discontinuous with historical time, a transient irruption rapidly fossilised into the practico-inert (as Jean-Paul Sartre would have it)? Is it actually irrational to participate in revolution at all, as experiments in game-theory like the Prisoner’s Dilemma would suggest? Is it worth talking about working-class revolution anyway, given that scholars like André Gorz posit its disappearance? To all of these propositions, Callinicos answers with a resounding no. Instead, he maintains that the possibilities for revolution remain implanted in the contradiction between the forces and relations of production of the capitalist mode of production, a mode of production which now globally supports a working-class that has never been numerically stronger. As Taylor’s strong evaluators, agents can mobilise as collectivities that are imbued with varying structural capacities for the exercise of social power. The outcomes of these struggles are never preordained, and they take part in complex structural matrices in which the forces of revolution can conflict with “traditions” that can alter the shape of the struggle. Ideologies like Catholicism (in the case of Poland’s Solidarność) and Afrikaner nationalism (in the case of apartheid South Africa) actively create a tradition of which they claim descent, positing a deeply historical sense of national belonging which, on investigation, is often revealed to be of much more recent provenance. In the play of these uncertain struggles, victory can never be assured, but Callinicos is convinced that, if there is to be victory at all, it must be with the working-class in the lead. Unlike earlier revolutions in which the role of structural contradictions was paramount, conscious human agency plays a relatively greater part in the case of the working-class revolution, given the necessity of the seizure of political power by the broad mass of the people. We are thus brought full circle, ending with the understanding that an adequate theory of revolution, particuarly working-class revolution, must be equipped with the tools to understand this dialectically intwined play between the structural capacities of agents and their intentional activity.
It is rare for me to go into so much substantive detail on a book’s content in the context of a review, but I have felt here compelled to, given the extraordinarily wide-ranging task Callinicos takes upon himself in the text. An account which proffers no less than a theoretical articulation of structure and agency throughout history perforce requires a detailed overview of that articulation. Having surveyed the ground, I can now isolate those parts of the book which spoke to me particularly, as well as outline some areas of critique. In doing this, I note that I cannot do justice to the robust and productive debates which each and every chapter gave rise to between members of the Past & Present Reading Group. Points of contention included: the actual utility of Callinicos’ theoretical model in organically making room for struggles based on non-class identities like gender and ethnicity; whether or not Callinicos is better at posing useful questions that situate the problem of structure and agency, as opposed to solving it; and the justice Callinicos does to certain authors, with several members of the group in particular suggesting that a mischief had been done to Habermas. Beyond noting these debates, I speak for myself in the comments that follow.
To return to the problematic I outlined above, did I find an adequate way to retain the insights of Althusser whilst dispensing with the fatalistic account of human subjectivity? In short, yes. Whilst other members of the group were charier, I broadly agree with the theoretical model that Callinicos has created. To my mind, (dare I say like Odysseus?) he has successfully charted a course between the Scylla of structuralism and the Charybdis of analytical Marxism. The notion of the ‘structural capacities’ of class actors, the general definition of a mode of production consisting of different levels/bundles of relations, the interpellative nature of ideology – Callinicos retains these essential insights of Althusser in his account.
Where Althusser is rebuffed/qualified is in two movements that are absolutely essential in making the space for agency in Callinicos’ model. First, through explicitly adopting the orthodox theory of agents as engaged in intentional, often goal-directed activity, Callinicos returns some explanatory autonomy to the human individual. Human beings are much more than the passive bearers of capitalist social relations. They may be shaped by them, moulded by them, hemmed in by them, but they are never exhausted in them nor synonymous with them. This is not simply a matter for contemporary political praxis – Callinicos demonstrates how deeply this notion of agents is bound up in the study of history. One of the most thought-provoking implications in the book is that, without some basic idea of an enduring human nature, the past actually becomes at best of marginal relevance, at worst illegible. In the absence of this enduring human nature, there is no conceptual reason for privileging the study of, say, Aztec civilisation over a flock of birds. If we refuse to accept some over-arching human nature (albeit one actualised in various ways across different modes of production), then the past truly does become a lost continent, from which we are not actually entitled to draw lessons. This is a deeply philosophic understanding that I hope to be cognisant of in my own work moving forward.
The second, related movement of Callinicos in addressing the pitfalls of Althusserianism is in modifying considerably the latter’s theory of ideology. Callinicos agrees with Althusser that ideology interpellates, that is, it invites us to take on a certain identity e.g. as a worker, as a Catholic, as a fascist etc. However, Callinicos is much more open to a constellation of ideologies, each seeking to interpellate the individual in a specific way. This then implies some kind of choice, moral or otherwise, on the part of that agent in answering the call of a certain ideology as opposed to another. This is a much more satisfactory understanding than Althusser’s conception of subjectivity (read agency) being constituted through ideology in the first place, such that subjectivity in itself is a figment (albeit a real, material one) of ideology, and thus more-or-less beholden to the status quo. Indeed, it is in this regard that the criticism of Althusser in terms of his positing of reproduction as a quasi-automatic process is most deserved. To paraphrase Christopher Hitchens’ view on the existence of a God, I think it would be rather awful if it was true that our own agency is a fiction, a humanist veneer on individual and collective action that is pre-determined to buttress the dominant ideology. Callinicos gives us an understanding by which we can avoid that fatalistic conclusion.
On a personal note, I found Callinicos’ discussion of the essentially Aristotelian morality Marx worked with inspiring. I have recently become very intrigued by the problem of morality in Marxist theory and have always found the contention that Marxism is a pure science divorced from moral concerns to be a false and dangerous one. As an active program of intervention in the world, we Marxists must put front-row-centre an understanding of why agents make certain choices over others, and for this a theory of morality is indispensable. In one very neat, incisive statement, Callinicos shows us how to square Aristotelianism with materialism (pp. 233-4):
the best way of making sense of Marx’s evaluative commitments is to ascribe to him an Aristotelian, virtue-based morality which is concerned with the empirically identifiable, historically specific conditions of human well-being (eudaimonia).
That is, we can take the same virtues identified by Aristotle, but derive them empirically, as opposed to metaphysically. On this basis, Callinicos’ invocation of agents as strong evaluators assumes a double importance, as they are capable of asking themselves what they want to be in the context of an historically specific society, as opposed to asking the same question in a transcendental, historical vacuum.
It is around ideology, however, that my biggest questions about the book revolve. In particular, there are two related issues. First, I think much more is needed regarding the essential nature of ideology, what it is that makes something ideological. The aforementioned definition proffered, that ideology refers to the way human beings live as conscious actors, seems almost impracticably broad. This vagueness underwrites a central claim of Callinicos, that ‘ideological belief are, like all beliefs, either true or false, but the truth-value of a belief does not enter into the criteria to be used for distinguishing the ideological and the non-ideological’ (p. 169). If ideology is a matter of how humans live as conscious actors, can there actually be non-ideological beliefs? What are these non-ideological beliefs, and how are they different from ideology? Is ideological belief here implicitly being counter-posed to scientific thought (an admittedly problematic distinction, but one that Althusser, to his credit, maintained)? Just as importantly, how are we to judge the truth or falsity of ideological belief? Take, for example, a statement of Althusser in For Marx discussing how ideology is always more than pure instrumentalism: ‘Thus, in a very exact sense, the bourgeoisie lives in the ideology of freedom the relation between it and its conditions of existence: that is, its real relation (the law of a liberal capitalist economy) but invested in an imaginary relation (all men are free, including the free labourers).’ On this score (and here Althusser retains the idea of all ideology as involving some form of imaginary), how can we say that this ideology is false? Does it not express some real precondition of a capitalist mode of production? It could of course be countered that the truth or falsity of an ideological belief takes it colour from the class position of the subject, and perhaps Callinicos takes some inchoate steps towards this in outlining his theory of interests, but the understanding needs to be fleshed out considerably.
I believe this categorical insistence on the intrinsic truth/falseness of ideology tends to manifest itself in the final substantive chapter on revolution and tradition. Callinicos describes a number of historical revolutionary situations, including the struggle against the apartheid state in Zimbabwe, the rise of Nazism in the 1920s and 1930s, the 1979 Iranian revolution and the struggle of Solidarność against the Polish communist state. In all these cases, it appeared to the reading group that there was the model of a perfect, ideal revolution lurking in the shadows. If only the Polish working-class wasn’t influenced by Catholicism, the argument goes, and had been ‘clearer-headed’ than the state, things might have been different. If only the German Communist Party hadn’t adopted a nationalist outlook, fascism wouldn’t have triumphed (and presumably socialism would have).
Now, of course, in a kind of historical vaccum, these propositions would almost certainly be true. However, irrespective of how we feel about it, Catholicism was an important influence on the Polish working-class, and nationalism was an ideology with deep roots in German society. Now, I agree with Callinicos’ implicit argument that we cannot treat ideologies as hollow, formal vessels, from which we can simply empty one content and pour in another. There are, in fact, ideologies that are beyond redemption (fascism being the one that comes to mind). However, I don’t believe this is the case with all ideologies. Rather than focusing on whether or not an ideology is true or false, I think a more productive way of approaching the problem is to ask in whose interests a particularly ideological system is transforming consciousness. Posing the question in this light, I have no qualms about supporting, for example, the liberation theology movement in Latin America, or left-wing parties that draw upon and deepen progressive national traditions (like the Sandinistas). The logic of Callinicos’ argument, however, tends in the opposite direction. He makes it clear in Chapter 5 that all forms of nationalism, even left variants, are non-starters, claiming that ‘socialists who present their case from the perspective of the imagined communities of nationalism merely help perpetuate a situation in which ‘the tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living’ (p. 254). In the abstract, I would agree. However, the political consequences of such a stand could impose a fatal toll – in this era of general working-class retreat/weakness, I feel that to first purge the working-class of all “false” ideologies (ideologies which Callinicos agrees are often deeply felt) before implanting it with the “truth” could render a revolutionary project stillborn.
These issues notwithstanding, Callinicos has produced a theory of history that is inspiring in its breadth and trenchantly revolutionary in its politics. I came to the end of it with a strong feeling of satisfaction, having found a very useful guide to chart the foggy paths of structure and agency. In the contemporary era, where the possibilities for meaningful social change are perhaps the greatest they have been in several generations, Making History remains necessary reading.